When the Washington Capitals host the Florida Panthers on Tuesday, they’ll aim to win five straight games to open a season for the first time in franchise history. Their franchise player, meantime, will be aiming for his first breakout performance of 2011-12.
Alex Ovechkin has just one goal, one assist, a plus-minus rating of minus-2 and 15 shots on goal through the season’s first four games.
He’s never had fewer than two goals in the first four games of a campaign and his shot total matches his fewest since 2005-06, the year he broke into the NHL. Seven teammates have more points than him, including Jason Chimera and Karl Alzner.
The sample size is small, but Ovechkin acknowledged that his play has been underwhelming one season after he scored a career-low 32 goals.
Now, he said, is the time to ensure a slow start doesn’t become a slump.
“My results is not that good,” Ovechkin said as he removed his skates after Monday’s hour-long practice.
His first point — a primary assist — came in the opener against Carolina. His slap shot missed the net, caromed off the end boards and back out to Brooks Laich, who swept it into the net during a 5-on-3 power play. Ovechkin’s goal came on a redirection of a Mike Green point shot that he tipped from about 21 feet out against Pittsburgh.
Neither was of the highlight quality that fans have come to expect from the 26-year-old Russian.
So there he was Monday morning, lugging a bucket of pucks onto the ice. After spilling them at the top of the circle, Ovechkin lined the pucks up, then for the next five minutes fired them into an empty net.
Although Ovechkin has always possessed one of the hardest shots in the league, it can also be inaccurate. Too many this season, the two-time MVP said, have been off-target. In fact, 17 of his attempts have either been blocked or missed the net altogether. Hence the bucket.
“That wasn’t prompted by me,” Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “So he obviously feels that his shot is not as accurate. That’s something we want to get going.”
Boudreau also pointed to two other potential reasons for Ovechkin’s sluggish first two weeks: He’s playing fewer minutes than he’s accustomed to and he’s still struggling to counter the way teams now defend him.
Ovechkin has averaged 19 minutes 52 seconds of ice time this season, which is down from the 21:21 he skated a year ago. It’s also something he’s going to have to get used to, Boudreau said.
“He’s not getting 22 minutes a game,” Boudreau said. “Instead he’s getting 18 to 19 minutes a game because the team is more balanced than it’s been in the past. How many goals does that equate to? How many points does that equate to? But does it equate to more team success? Sometimes less is better.”
Since the midpoint of last season, Boudreau and his staff have been working closely with Ovechkin to help him become less predictable on offense.
Ovechkin’s go-to move has been to carry the puck into the offensive zone from the left side, then cut hard into the high slot and use the defenseman as a screen. The past two seasons, defenders have been stepping up on him as an opposing forward applies pressure from the backside, often stripping him of the puck or forcing him into a low percentage shot.
That’s still happening too often and he’s still not using his linemates enough.
“We do a lot of communicating and talking and video with Alex,” Boudreau said. “There’s a fine line between showing him too much and overwhelming him, and letting him use the skills that have got him to where he is.”
Boudreau said he’s not losing sleep over Ovechkin’s start — yet. One reason, the coach said, is that he’s noticed small signs of improvement in Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Ottawa. And those signs carried over into Monday’s session.
“That last game, pucks were coming off his stick quicker,” Boudreau said. “He was making moves below the circles quicker. He was using his body better. He had more jump in his legs. He had more jump in practice today.
“Eventually,” he added, “he’s going to have a big offensive game.”